“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.

Bell, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins, sees that birth as monstrous: European total war from 1792 to 1815. From the outset he admits that the concept of total war “seems to get blurrier the closer you come to it.” It is a concept more conventionally associated with the First or Second World War than with the French Revolution and its aftermath. Gen. Erich Ludendorff directed the German war effort in World War I and published his grim pamphlet Der Totale Krieg in 1935. Eight years later, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, shrieked infamously at a crowd in the Berlin Sports Palace: “Do you want total war?” Attempts to define total war, in the abstract, in general or removed from context, are inevitably contentious. Bell settles on a reasonable working definition: “a war involving the complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants.” The extremity of this definition makes the full realization of total war improbable, now or in the past. Acknowledging this, Bell defends the concept in broader political and cultural terms, seeking to explain the emergence of new understandings of war behind the cataclysmic intensification of fighting from Valmy to Napoleon’s fall in 1815.

He uses the oxymoronic notion of a “culture of war” to capture an aspect of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic studies relatively underexplored, but tantalizingly resonant with contemporary political predicaments on both sides of the Atlantic. He cites historian John Keegan’s professional complaint that “not even the beginnings of an attempt have been made by military historians to plot the intellectual landmarks and boundaries of their own field of operations.” Bell addresses this deficit by connecting military and cultural history for the period 1792-1815 through the history of ideas. But he is not writing exclusively, or even primarily, for fellow historians. The First Total War is a book for general readers with stomachs strong enough for history’s grittier details. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 raised hopes for decades of lasting peace. Similar hopes attended the French Revolution in 1789. As we struggle to come to terms with our own generation’s disappointment, it might prove instructive, if far from comforting, to look back two centuries at shattered hopes not our own. That, at least, is Bell’s suggestion in this engaging, ambitious, intelligent book.

Blending the history of ideas with narrative history is not easy, particularly since thinkers and writers are typically far removed from the stage of history, where decisions on war and peace are made. Immanuel Kant, for example, lived almost all his life, as Bell tells us, “within the chill gray walls, streets, and skies of the Baltic Prussian city of Königsberg, where he taught philosophy uneventfully at the university.” Bell’s solution is largely to segregate thought from action. This is most apparent in an early chapter in which he expounds on Enlightenment theories of war and peace, painstakingly elaborated in the decades of the eighteenth century that led inexorably to revolution. Here the tangles of pacifist thought are patiently but economically and, on occasion, even amusingly, unraveled. François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, an aristocrat and archbishop, was the author of the bestselling novel Telemachus, a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey that “urged Christian pacifism on Christian rulers.” First published in 1699, Telemachus went through more than a hundred editions in the next century, but “today, it is exasperatingly difficult to see why,” Bell frankly admits. “Many chapters–even Telemachus’s despairing search for his father amid the ghosts of Hades–consist of little but large helpings of unadulterated, virtually indigestible virtue, accompanied by verbose sermonizing and much shedding of pious tears.”

Another religious aristocrat and proto-pacifist, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, published A Project for Making Peace Perpetual in Europe in 1713. Bell wryly remarks that Saint-Pierre’s book “has the dubious honor of counting among the intellectual antecedents of the United Nations.” Then there was the Baron d’Holbach, whose System of Nature ranked third on pre-Revolutionary France’s bestseller list (by the historian Robert Darnton’s reckoning), while its companion volume, The Social System, “came in at a respectable twenty-nine”; and finally Kant himself in 1784 with his essay “Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitical History.” For all the differences in their complex and intricate ideas, Bell argues, all these theorists were united in rejecting the ancien régime understanding of war as an ordinary part of the social order.

It was this old, carefully delineated and stylized approach to combat that total war was destined to supplant by the end of the century. The officers, gentlemen and poets who once packed off to war between May and October with spare pairs of silk stockings in their baggage trains are a crucial foil in Bell’s story. While these men were philosophically assailed in the name of progress by the likes of Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, d’Holbach and Kant, their approach to war was nonetheless more civilized, or contained, than the monster ushered onto the world stage after 1789. Bell quotes a typical letter from the pre-Revolutionary war in Corsica: “It was the sort of life that suited me best: musket shots all day long, and supper with my mistress in the evening!” War of any kind is grisly, but Bell insists that historians “need to be able to make distinctions between shades of horror.” On his account there is no contest: The bloodshed directed by aristocrats before 1789 pales into insignificance beside the “apocalyptic” bloodbaths that followed.

The thrust of this argument brings Bell up sharply against one of the most intractable questions about the French Revolution: Was it caused by Enlightenment social and political thought? Can its excesses and atrocities be attributed in some subtle yet direct way to the intellectual contributions of Voltaire, Rousseau or the proto-pacifists mentioned above? Bell claims that the arguments for peace that won over Europe’s intellectual elite during the eighteenth century were philosophical abstractions, insulated from the practice of war by a metaphorical glass wall, which the Revolution was to shatter. It put ideas into practice, just as Edmund Burke had seen it would. “The mode of civilized war will not be practiced,” he predicted in 1791, “nor are the French…entitled to expect it…. The hell-hounds of war, on all sides, will be uncoupled and unmuzzled.” Burke was right, but as he conceded, there was no moral high ground left to occupy, only squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war.

It is far from obvious how the Enlightenment arguments for peace that the revolutionaries inherited can have transmuted in so few years into unprecedented bloodshed in Europe, or total war. Curtly summarized, the trajectory seems utterly bizarre. Bell, like all other historians of the Revolution who take its chronology seriously, has his work cut out simply keeping up with the torrent of events. Following the thread of war, he bypasses the beginning of the Revolution and goes straight into the spring of 1790. The National Assembly, which had given itself the protracted task of designing a new constitutional monarchy for France, was prompted to discuss whether or not the king retained the right to declare war by an international dispute over far-off Nootka Sound, in what is now North Vancouver Island. In this debate, on May 15 of that year, Robespierre urged the Assembly to take a “great step” forward:

you could show the nations of the earth that, following principles very different from those that have cast the peoples of the world into misery, the French nation, content to be free, has no desire to engage in any war, and wishes to live with all nations in the fraternity commanded by nature.

The Assembly did not simply follow Robespierre’s advice, but it did officially renounce wars of conquest; and his intervention is crucial in Bell’s story because it raises the wider question of war’s legitimacy. A year later, Robespierre opposed the impending war with Austria and Prussia. Other revolutionaries (namely Brissot and others broadly known as the Girondins) thought war would consolidate their domestic achievement, end the need for future wars and spread liberation abroad in its wake. “This war will be the last war,” the Girondin General Dumouriez declared. Robespierre knew they were wrong:

The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign county to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries….

He had good arguments, but he lost. Meanwhile, Dumouriez emerged as “a new and important type of French figure: the political general.” The nation and its resources were increasingly mobilized and directed toward the war effort; and political rhetoric turned ever more apocalyptic after the final fall of the monarchy in August 1792. A month later, at Valmy, Dumouriez had approximately 52,000 soldiers against only 34,000 of the enemy, but half his infantry were new volunteers, untrained and inadequately armed, marching optimistically into battle, singing the “Ça ira.” The Revolution and the newborn Republic were at stake. “Valmy, you do not explain it,” the French statesman Georges Clémenceau later remarked, “it is an aurora, an aurora of hope…a moral phenomenon.” But, Bell claims, “from Valmy to Waterloo, the road runs straight.” Even Robespierre, so strikingly pacifist in earlier debates, included this ominous warning in his draft for a new Republican declaration of rights in 1793:

Those who make war on a people to halt the progress of liberty and destroy the rights of man must be attacked by all, not as ordinary enemies, but as assassins and rebel brigands.

In its fight for survival the Revolution would “take no prisoners.” This applied equally at home. Bell finds total war fully incarnate in the bloody repression of the counterrevolution in the west of France: the Vendée. This, he insists, was not genocide but a war of extermination. On battlefields abroad, practice did not always correspond to theory; but in the Vendée tragically, horrifically, it did. On August 1, 1793, the Convention (which had been elected to design the new Republican constitution) adopted its scorched-earth policy against the Vendée. “Women, priests, monks, men and children, all were put to death. I took no prisoners. I did my duty, but there is pleasure in avenging one’s country,” a Republican official reminisced. To distinguish “the face of total war” from guerrilla warfare, Bell emphasizes the “erasure of any line between combatants and noncombatants and the wanton slaughter of both–and at the behest of politics more than military necessity.”

The destruction of the Vendée was over by the spring of 1794. Nothing in the following twenty-one years of Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars quite matched it in savagery; still, Bell argues, it represented “a matrix of French experience.” He shows the escalating military ambitions of Napoleon intersecting with this matrix and takes the following as signs of total war: apocalyptic rhetoric, extensive mobilization of the nation’s resources and the subordination of military necessity to political ends. Napoleon obviously contributed much more to the formula, some of it reminiscent of the old aristocratic approach to war; he had, after all, been trained as a junior officer of the ancien régime. But Bell looks forward rather than back to an understanding of military glory in terms of Romantic transcendence. In 1797 Napoleon’s own newspaper explicitly reversed the National Assembly’s 1790 renunciation of conquest, to exalt instead “the double glory of conqueror, and of benefactor of nations.”

An important strand of continuity between the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars is the composition of the military, which, Bell argues, “was still what the Revolution had made it: a world distinct from civilian society,” a world that glorified war. On this analysis it was “the logic of total war” that both drove Napoleon on and ultimately undermined him. The scale and scope of his battles grew exponentially; Bell concedes that while it is “tempting” to think that with more restraint Napoleon might have secured more lasting success, even the most gifted general since Alexander the Great could not escape the demands of total war. The interesting question is: why?

A full answer lies beyond the scope of this book, which is first and foremost an engrossing narrative, drawing the general reader into the bloody birth of European politics as we know it. Even so, the final chapter, “War’s Red Altar,” argues that insurgents from Portugal to the Tyrol to Russia retaliated by declaring total war on France: It was this mutual and absolute enmity that precluded restraint and produced the horrors that Goya represented in the brutal paintings and drawings that make up his “Disasters of War” series. Spain, writes Bell, became the “ulcer” in Napoleon’s empire, and “saw the development of a guerrilla war every bit as destructive as–and eerily similar to–the insurgency now under way in early twenty-first-century Iraq.” He explains that “following the philosophes of the Enlightenment, who judged societies by their place on the great ladder of historical progress, and following the Revolutionaries, who had transformed such judgments into political action, Napoleon’s men condemned the Spanish as weak and archaic in equal measure.” French condescension was misplaced. The Spanish were a different kind of “nation in arms”: irregular street fighters determined to expel their invaders, any which way, and at any cost. Corpse after naked corpse was piled high in blood-streaked roads, but insurgency continued.

Perhaps the most important message of Bell’s book is also the lone uplifting one: The era of extreme warfare that he describes did not inaugurate permanent total war in Europe. The specter returned in 1914, but for the intervening century it disappeared. Those who reject the characterization of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era as one of “total war” lose with it (if Bell is right) the learning opportunity of the years from 1815 to 1914. Inching back, climbing down, from total war, remembering ways to limit or curtail bellicose exchange and above all dispensing with the idea of an extraordinary war to end all wars: These are urgent lessons for our time. The case Bell makes for beginning in the eighteenth century is robust.